February 25th, 2013 by Digestive Detective
While opponents or the media portray the "Paleo Diet" as just another trend or fad, there is increasing evidence (both clinical trials and anecdotal) that supports the adoption of a Paleo-style approach to diet, movement, and overall lifestyle. This last aspect may be the key: that the way in which we live in our modern world is not ideal to maintaining, let alone optimizing, our health and vitality. It doesn't take a public health expert to realize that the trappings of modern life and its busy, hectic, stressful lifestyle are in part, if not wholly, responsible for our current state of poor health as a culture and a society. As a culture we have moved further and further away from the habits and practices that were obvious, and in some cases innate, to our ancestors. We have disrupted the natural order in many facets of our lives, and thereby broken the natural rhythms that help provide us with good health. This disruption of natural rhythms is not simply conjecture or the thing of new age quackery but of real biological functions, and therefore biological consequences, such as circadian sleep/wake cycles, hormonal regulation, and the function of metabolic pathways. As more individuals examine the true nature of the Paleo-lifestyle, the reasons become obvious why this method of ancestral, genetically-geared living makes sense both logically and innately.
Reason #1: Nutrient Density
At its heart, the dietary component of a Paleo-lifestyle is focused on optimizing nutrient density. While the originators of the Paleo movement, such as Professor Loren Cordain, espoused a more strict approach that essentially precluded any foods developed after the advent of agriculture, other advocates such as Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser now promote a more open "Paleo-template" approach to nutrition. This approach factors in more features of individual biochemistry and tolerance to include foods such as dairy (if well-tolerated) and sprouted legumes. In either case, the underlying theme from all those in the "Paleosphere" is a concentration on getting the most "bang for your buck" with nutrients; this means completely abandoning processed foods void of nutrition and returning to a more whole foods, local, seasonal, farm-based approach to eating. The fact that processed foods are not healthy for us should be no surprise to anyone yet we as consumers continue to shop for "low-fat this" and "processed-that" in an effort to gain health or simply for convenience. Does it take more time and effort to garden, visit local farmers, and cook your own food? Yes. Is it healthier for you, your children, your family and the environment in general? Absolutely.
Nutrient density is vital in health as studies show that a large majority of Americans are deficient in not just one, but a whole host of important micronutrients. You may ask, "How is this possible that we aren't getting enough nutrition with such an epidemic of obesity?" Its simple: we are truly a nation that is overfed, yet undernourished. Statistics show that about half of Americans are deficient in several different micronutrients, including zinc, calcium, magnesium, B6; and one-third are deficient in riboflavin (B2), thiamine (B1), folate, vitamin C, and iron. This is in part due to the reliance on nutrient-poor, processed foods while another factor is the underlying lack of nutrient-rich soils that much of our crops are grown in now. As early as 1962, reports showed that crop tactics and certain food processing practices had left our soils depleted of the essential nutrients that feed that the plants that eventually feed us.
Paleo-based eating considers nutrient-density first and foremost and the foods recommended such as root vegetables, dark leafy greens, berries, nuts, fish/shellfish, and organ meats are among the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. The second tenet of Paleo nutrition is the exclusion of toxins - both food-based (more accurately referred to as "toxicants") and from the source of the food. Food toxicants include antigens such as gluten (deleterious to the gut and one of the three factors that can lead to autoimmune disease; to see the amazing impact that a Paleo approach to eating can have on autoimmune conditions, check out Dr. Terry Wahl's TEDTalk), phytates (that bind to minerals preventing their absorption) and lectins (immunogenic). Elements introduced into foods are also to be avoided such as antibiotics and hormones in conventionally-raised/"factory-farmed" meats and poultry along with pesticides used to treat crops. These compounds, not inherent in nature, are typically given to animals or sprayed on plants to boost their growth or prevent them from becoming diseased due to the conditions under which they are produced/grown. As an alternative to avoid the ingestion of such compounds, many of which have been linked to everything from hormone disruption to cancer, local, organic foods are emphasized.
For many, hearing the tagline of "eating Paleo" conjures up images of restriction versus what Paleo advocates would encourage which is a broadening of dietary intake to include a wider selection of vegetables, fruits, meats, poultry, wild game, seafood, seeds, nuts, fermented foods, and organ meats, and an avoidance of the limited and unhealthy features of a Standard Western/American Diet. Experts across the board in conventional medicine and healthcare agree that current dietary habits of are a causative factor not only in the obesity epidemic, but in chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer among others. Clinical trials and peer-reviewed studies are beginning to illuminate light on the power of a Paleo-style dietary approach in the prevention and reversal of chronic disease. In a recent study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, researchers found that a Paleolithic-type diet resulted in lower BMI, and waist and hip circumference in obese, post-menopausal women. Waist/hip ratio and abdominal sagittal diameter also decreased significantly, in the study, as did diastolic blood pressure (mean -7 mmHg), levels of fasting serum glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL/HDL cholesterol, ApoB and ApoA1, urinary C-peptide and HOMA indices. Albeit a small study, these findings, along with results of others linked to Paleo-style dietary and lifestyle habits, lend credence to the fact that Paleo can impart significant health benefits from its nutritional approach.
I would propose that those interested in optimizing their health by "going Paleo" reframe the concept of a "Paleo Diet" with that of a "Paleo-style of eating". This style of eating would include taking measures to decrease the propensity of toxins in grains and legumes by using methods such as soaking and fermenting, as well as eliminating potential toxins such as gluten-based grains, preservatives, and additives. To simplify, it may be easier to just view Paleo-style eating as getting away from eating out of boxes and bags, tossing the processed foods, and doing as my colleague Sean Croxton from Underground Wellness encourages: JUST EAT REAL FOOD. The trade off seems reasonable - a little more effort for a lot more health benefit and nourishment.
In the next post in this series, I'll discuss the second reason to "go Paleo" which relates to movement/exercise and the keys on how you can get back to making fitness fun and rewarding, while getting the fastest results (fat loss, increased energy, etc.) in the shortest time. Find out how to break weight loss plateaus and recapture your own personal "playtime" in part 2.